6 secrets of successful meal planning

    Our advice will help you get food on the table fast—without resorting to fast food or takeout

    Published: February 06, 2014 09:00 AM

    Whether you're whipping up a weeknight meal or throwing a multicourse dinner party, good planning is key. It's also what trips people up the most. In our recent report about cooking habits, more than 40 percent of respondents cited "too much planning" as the reason they don't make more meals at home. If you feel similarly, the following tips will help make you a more efficient and effective home cook.

    1. Organize the pantry. "Well-stocked" doesn't mean overflowing; it means having all the basic ingredients at hand. Smart organization will help you keep track of pantry supplies. Consider adding cabinet organizers, such as a lazy Susan or tiered shelf insert, to keep items visible and in their proper place. In our tests of assorted cabinet organizers, we saw big differences in durability and ease of use.

    As for the pantry supplies you keep stocked, that will depend to some extent on the type of cooking you do, but it helps to divide staples into categories, such as condiments, grains, oils and vinegars, etc. (Find the best extra-virgin olive oils from our tests.)           

    2. Save time with strategic menus. Grandma was right: Cooking a substantial dish, like a roast or turkey, on the weekend sets the stage for progressive dining during the days to come. Because at least one element of the meal is already cooked, these weekday meals are more about speedy assembly than from-scratch preparation. For example: Sunday's roast chicken can be transformed into tacos, and later into sandwich fillings or a salad topping.

    3. Consider online supermarkets. If your mantra is "time is money,: grocery home-delivery services like Peapod and FreshDirect might merit a look. While they do free you from walking the aisles in person, that convenience comes at a cost. There are minimum-order requirements and the delivery charges are often prorated on this basis. Fuel surcharges, which vary by geographical location, are also often part of the deal. Canceling or changing an order can be tricky, and incur additional fees.

    On the plus side, most services accept (and may even double) manufacturers' coupons. Signing up—and paying—for a premium membership may eliminate per-use delivery charges, a significant savings for regular users. Make the most of your online grocery-shopping experience.

    4. Use efficient equipment. Households large and small will benefit from work-saving countertop appliances. Slow cookers, for example, can free you from the kitchen for hours at a time. The models we tested turned out tasty spare ribs, pulled pork, honey chicken wings, and apple brown Betty. Prices, which ranged from $40 to $250, didn't predict performance.

    A top-rated immersion blender can eliminate the messy extra step of transferring hot soup to a conventional blender for pureeing. Beware of overkill, though, and scale the tool to the task: If all you need is a half cup of shredded cheese, don't break out the food processor—a box grater will do. See which kitchen gadgets, including graters, peelers, and zesters, aced our tests.

    5. Know the ingredient substitutions. There's no such thing as a "quick" run to the store when you're in the middle of getting dinner on the table. North Dakota State University has compiled a list of ingredient substitutions that might be helpful if you unexpectedly find yourself short on essentials such as flour, eggs, or milk.

    6. Plan for future kitchen upgrades. If you're considering a kitchen remodel, avail yourself of the latest technologies and designs intended to streamline life in the kitchen. Electric induction cooktops heat faster than conventional electric smoothtops, as well as gas burners, according to our latest report on these cooking appliances. Convection fans can shave substantial minutes off cooking times in the oven. A top-scoring double oven, whether on the wall or in a range, can break a baking or roasting logjam. And we were mostly impressed with the time-saving potential of several new steam ovens.

    —Leslie Clagett

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